Football: United wake up just in time

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The Independent Online
Derby County 1 Manchester United 1

Burton 74 Cruyff 86

Half-time: 0-0 Attendance: 30,867

ALEX FERGUSON has grown out of his teacup throwing stage, but if ever there was an eloquent testimony to his anger it came at Pride Park yesterday nine minutes from time. United, strangely lethargic after their midweek cruise in Copenhagen, were heading for their second Premier League defeat of the season, ruffled out of their cultured passing style by an intensely committed Derby side, when a three-man substitution shook them awake.

On came two of the midweek XI, Jesper Blomquist and Paul Scholes, along with Jordi Cruyff, off went Gary Neville, Nicky Butt and Ryan Giggs, victims perhaps of the heavy conditions at the Parken stadium on Wednesday. "I would have brought on four if I could have done," the Manchester United manager said. "We were pretty poor, to be honest, and didn't deserve even to draw the game."

A mere four minutes later and United had scrambled their equaliser, courtesy of a left-foot shot by a rejuvenated Cruyff past an unsighted Russell Hoult. By the final whistle, it was Derby who were hanging on for dear life and United who were trying to summon the killer punch, but any more than a point would have been a travesty to the home side, who had cast off a run of three consecutive defeats to pin United back for long periods of a curiously incoherent match. When they took the lead through Deon Burton after 74 minutes, it seemed that the gambling instincts of their manager, Jim Smith, had paid dividends once again.

Eschewing United's recent imperious scoring form, Smith elected to bring Deon Burton back to form a three-man front line with Paulo Wanchope and Dean Sturridge. A similar sense of adventure cost Brondby dear on Wednesday night, but Smith knew his enemy, having engineered a victory at Old Trafford two seasons ago and maintained a near perfect home record against the outstanding side of the decade. United have not won at Derby, either at Pride Park or the beloved old Baseball Ground, for nine years.

Ferguson refused to blame the European excursion for what he called a "lack of aggression" in his side. "Blimey, we've been playing long enough in Europe to guard against that sort of thing, we just gave the ball away too easily," Ferguson said. His one consolation came from the response of his side in adversity. "I wish they'd scored 25 minutes earlier."

No lack of urgency from either side permeated the opening exchanges. Derby's tactics were simplicity itself: hit the strikers early, keep United on the back foot and, whenever possible, clip in a cross. "To be fair, we went route one," Smith admitted. "We wanted to keep their full-backs occupied." Their cause was inadvertently helped by the arrival of an old face, Tony Dorigo, back in the Premier League on a month's loan after a season with Torino in Serie B.

The former Leeds, Aston Villa and Chelsea full-back fitted in perfectly on the left side of the Derby midfield, after replacing the injured Jacob Laursen at half-time, and with his first real touch whipped in a low cross which had Gary Neville scrambling for position. A suspicion of a timely nudge on Wanchope was confirmed by Neville's look of choirboy innocence, but referee Paul Durkin turned away from the appeals.

Dorigo was involved in the early creation of the Derby goal, his back heel giving Daryll Powell space and time to pick a low cross. Burton, on his first start of the season, sneaked behind United's static central defence to tuck the ball past Peter Schmeichel from six yards. It was no less than justice, if only because Derby had a coherent game plan and stuck to it with fervour. Wanchope, so often United's tormentor, gave Jaap Stam no peace.

United, restricted to a couple of long-range shots by Butt, were drawn into a long-ball game entirely foreign to their nature. Beckham was a fringe figure, until unluckily booked moments from time, Roy Keane barely left his station in front of the back four and neither Andy Cole nor Dwight Yorke, such an impressive combination in midweek, got any change from their markers, with the return of Igor Stimac as sweeper lending substance to the Derby defence.

Ferguson's misery was compounded by bookings for Cole, Gary Neville and Beckham and by his pitchside perch. "The Derby coach stood in front of me all game, I couldn't see a thing." On reflection, he was probably the lucky one.